SpaceX Receives Approval to Operate Some Starlink Satellites in Lower Orbit

The FCC has handed SpaceX a partial victory in the latest round of its scraps with competing satellite Internet providers by approving the operation of 2,814 Starlink satellites at a lower orbit than previously planned. Some competitors like OneWeb and Amazon’s planned “Project Kuiper” satellite constellation had objected on the grounds that the satellites could interfere with their operations.

SpaceX says that the lower orbits will make Starlink capable of faster Internet speeds and lower latency. This will likely make Starlink more attractive for Internet users who want fast “reaction times” in their Internet services. The gamer in the below video, for instance, tested a few online games with the Starlink “Better than Nothing Beta.”

OneWeb had previously reported that one of its Internet satellites nearly collided with a Starlink satellite during launch, which triggered a “Red Alert” from the U.S. Space Force. SpaceX disputes the report, saying that OneWeb misrepresented the facts and the two satellites did not pass as close as it claimed.

Elon Musk also has an ongoing feud with Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who runs the aerospace company Blue Origin. Most recently, SpaceX beat out Blue Origin for a NASA contract to complete development of the lunar lander for the Artemis Program.

The FCC did set some conditions for the approval of lower orbits for Starlink’s satellites. SpaceX must provide a semiannual report of failed satellites and coordinate with other satellite operators to ensure that signals from Starlink satellites do not interfere with the signals of competing Internet satellite constellations. The company will also have to report any future close calls between Starlink and other satellites.

SpaceX will especially have to work around the operations of other satellite constellations that are yet to be launched, which Amazon called an important partial victory for Project Kuiper.

“These conditions address our primary concerns regarding space safety and interference, and we appreciate the Commission’s work to maintain a safe and competitive environment in low earth orbit,” an Amazon spokesperson said in a statement.

Some of the fight between satellite Internet companies did leak out onto Twitter, which may be a little predictable for anything involving any combination of Elon Musk, regulators, and competitors. Musk started it in January when he accused Bezos of attempting to “hamstring” Starlink:

Amazon responded with an official statement that accused Musk and SpaceX of attempting “to smother competition in the cradle if they can.”

Amazon’s sentiment echoed Elon Musk’s complaint that ViaSat simply disliked competition when the company filed a complaint against SpaceX saying that the tens of thousands of Starlink satellites that the latter plans to launch will significantly add to the “space junk” problem. Skywatchers already say that they often spot strings of Starlink satellites streaking their way across the night sky. Incidents like the alleged near-collision between Starlink and OneWeb satellites may become more common as the region in which most orbiting satellites operate becomes more crowded.

The FCC did cite a statement from the American Astronomical Society saying that the proposed lower orbits for Starlink satellites will help to reduce the amount of sunlight that the satellites reflect at night by placing them in Earth’s shadow more. The regulators also accepted SpaceX’s word that the lower orbits would make it easier to deorbit the satellites when they have reached the end of their useful lives.

SpaceX also has an agreement with NASA to share information on the orbits of assets owned by either party. The International Space Station is capable of maneuvering to avoid “space junk” and Starlink satellites have a collision avoidance system that can maneuver out of the way of defunct satellites. SpaceX says that it disabled the collision avoidance system on the satellite in question to give OneWeb’s satellite a chance to maneuver out of the way in the recent incident.